For five years, Illinois State University has offered education majors a unique option to fulfill their student teaching requirement: spend a year as an intern in northwest suburban Wheeling Elementary School District 21.

The Wheeling Professional Development School far surpasses the state requirement of five semester hours of student teaching. To qualify, students must complete a regimen of basic education courses. Then, three days a week, students work with a teacher-mentor in a Wheeling elementary school; the other two days, they take classes from Illinois State (ISU) professors, who travel from downstate. This year, 29 ISU seniors are participating. The experience, say alums, is invaluable.

“When I went to interview for a job, I had more skills than people who had just been in a student teaching program for six weeks,” says Laura David, a 4th-grade teacher at Frost Elementary in Wheeling. David, 23, says the year she spent at Frost as an ISU senior helped her become a better teacher and a hot commodity after graduation. “I cannot imagine starting my first year of teaching and not having a year of student teaching under my belt.”

“We have to move teacher education closer to the schools,” says ISU Education Dean Sally Pancrazio. “It makes it far more real than delivering those courses back on campus, where they don’t even see a kid.”

A number of national organizations and task forces have been pushing in this direction for years, and they’re beginning to see action.

For example, ISU teamed up with Loyola, Northeastern Illinois, Roosevelt, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to seek federal funding for cooperative efforts in teacher training. In September, this Illinois Professional Learning Partnership received $2.4 million from the U.S. Department of Education to create more hands-on teaching training programs in public schools. ISU will get $500,000 of that amount to support programs like the Wheeling Professional Development School and other teacher education improvements. This comes on top of close to $1 million in grants the institution has garnered over the last four years for teacher education programs, says Pancrazio.

A student teacher’s first experience in a classroom can be like a seagull fishing in Lake Michigan—a swift swoop into chilly waters. ISU’s Wheeling program gives students more time to get acclimated.

In the fall semester, students split their time among taking methods classes, teaching elementary classes under the supervision of a trained mentor, and observing middle-school classes. In the spring, students teach full time in their elementary schools, at first with a mentor, then for six weeks on their own. Students have the opportunity to teach lessons they have planned themselves, observe other elementary grades and revisit middle schools to teach at a higher grade level.

‘I taught today’

On a recent October afternoon, Patti Daly’s teacher-mentor has stepped out of the room, leaving Daly in charge of her 3rd-grade class at Frost. As students work by themselves on a lesson about the concept of perimeter, which Daly planned, Daly walks around the room, examining each student’s work. From the children’s perspective, Daly is the teacher.

“I actually feel like I taught today, compared with the first time I taught a lesson,” says Daly, who started at Frost seven weeks ago. “You just learn so much, like how to handle the class and the kids’ personalities.”

The confluence of training and experience allows interns to critically examine their progress. At the same time, ISU and the school district have the opportunity to fine-tune their training program while it’s in progress. Courses are designed to “connect the dots” from teacher training to the teaching profession, says Pancrazio. “Our kids are getting four times the state’s requirement for clinical experience. The other difference is our faculty stay up to speed because they’re out in real schools with real kids.”

Tracking progress

Robert Gerry, assessment director for District 21, has tracked progress of the ISU Professional Development School by interviewing interns, their mentors and their students. “There is no question in [mentor-teachers’] minds that interns develop a good relationship with the kids and that they have a positive impact,” Gerry says. “The kids respond pretty much the same way.”

Case in point: Patti Daly’s 3rd-grade students are comfortable working with either her or their regular teacher, Karen Spencer. When Ethan, 8, found out his younger sister had only one teacher, he says he told her, “You need another.”

Students are quick to praise Daly’s work with the class. “I like when she teaches reading,” says Ben, 8, “because she is a good reader. If someone says, ‘You are reading too fast,’ she listens and slows down.”

“She makes up fun games, too,” says Rachel, 9. Daly’s presence helps the regular teacher, notes Ryan, 8, “because if the teacher has to do some work, like she has a meeting or something, the student teacher is always there.”

The response in unanimous when the children are asked whether Daly will be a good teacher when she graduates: Yes!

Spencer is a first-year alum of the ISU-Wheeling program. Coming full circle, she notes several differences between her intern experience in 1995-96 and Daly’s.

“I am giving more written feedback [than I got],” Spencer says. “Every time that Patti teaches a lesson, I am jotting notes down.”

Spencer co-teaches with Daly, a technique called weaving. “Patti and I play off of each other and help each other, ” she says.

That’s not how things worked when Spencer was an intern. “With my mentor, there were certain lessons that she would teach and [others] I would teach,” she recalls. Teacher-mentors now communicate more with each other, Spencer says, during mentor meetings and graduate classes.

The mentor relationship sometimes outlasts the formal program. Two years ago, Spencer was Laura David’s mentor. “She is still a mentor to me now,” David says. “I went to her for eight weeks in her classroom.”

“This program prepares you to teach, period,” says Daly, “not a certain grade level, not a certain school, not a certain type of student.”

Getting ISU’s Wheeling program to the point where it serves as a model has taken two years of planning, five years of operation and the collaboration of many levels of teachers and administrators. Wheeling has two liaisons to facilitate communications between the district and the university. District Supt. Lloyd “Bud” DesCarpentrie and the nine principals who have interns make a concerted effort to ensure the program’s success.

The program has been an asset for Frost Elementary, says Principal Greg Crocker. “Interns are rubbing noses with the very best teachers, who have lots of experience challenging the kids,” he says. “Selfishly, we are able to look at 30 to 40 interns a year, put them in a variety of situations, watch them work, and then hire the best ones.”

An important component of the Wheeling program is lining up teachers who can be good mentors, Crocker notes. “You have to encourage your student teachers and push them to get the best experiences possible.”

ISU pays teacher-mentors a small annual stipend. Interns must pay their own expenses for room and board. Many hail from Wheeling and live at home during their year of teaching. Travel reimbursements for ISU professors cost the program about $5,000 a year. ISU and the district share the cost of liaisons’ salaries.

Crocker says Wheeling is an “easy model” for other school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, to duplicate. A smaller program, based in one or two neighborhoods, would make the program manageable in a larger urban setting, he says.

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